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It may be time to refocus the goal of vaccinating 70% of every country, advocates say

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Two years ago today, the World Health Organization made it official and declared that the COVID-19 outbreak was a pandemic. Since then, more than 6 million people have died of COVID, with nearly 1 million deaths in the U.S. Vaccines have slowed the pace of the outbreak, and world leaders have set a goal of vaccinating 70% of people in every country. But some public health advocates say it's time to refocus that plan. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: This target of vaccinating 70% of the world's population against COVID was originally proposed by the World Health Organization, but President Biden made the goal a major priority last September and put a deadline on it - fall 2022. Gayle Smith was coordinator of the United States's global COVID response.

GAYLE SMITH: I think our thinking at the time was that the world had not embraced the level of ambition that was needed to really get moving on ramping up global vaccination coverage.

AIZENMAN: Wealthy countries had taken 80% of the vaccine supply. And in the lowest income countries, less than 10% of people had gotten a jab. Fixing that within a year was always going to be hard.

SMITH: There's absolutely no question about it.

AIZENMAN: But largely due to a ramp up in donations, most significantly from the United States, the supply crunch has started to ease. And yet, in lower, middle-income countries, more than half of the population still hasn't gotten a vaccine. And in the poorest countries, the needle has barely moved. In Africa, less than 13% of the population is fully vaccinated. Smith, who's now CEO of the ONE Campaign, a global health advocacy group, says for low-income countries, at this stage...

SMITH: I am less focused, quite frankly, on, will we get to 70% by September and more focused on, can we get well over 9%? Can we get to 20%, 30%, 40%, even 50%?

AIZENMAN: She says, for that to happen, the international community needs to invest a lot more into all the other steps to getting shots into people's arms - storage, transportation, health workers, campaigns to counter misinformation. Matt Linley is with Airfinity, an independent, London-based analytics company. He says, because of all the logistical barriers on average, low-income countries have only managed to use 45% of the doses they've gotten so far.

MATT LINLEY: So they're really struggling, even with a smaller amount of supply. The issue is struggling to roll out the supply they have rather than access.

AIZENMAN: Shabir Mahdi is a prominent vaccine researcher at South Africa's University of Witwatersrand. He worries that in his country, the 70% goal has actually become a harmful distraction.

SHABIR MADHI: We seem to have lost perspective as to what the major goal of vaccines are at this point in time and where it's going to yield the greatest public health benefit.

AIZENMAN: He notes that the 70% target was set back when scientists thought that if you got that many people immunized, the world would drastically limit the spread of the virus.

MADHSI: That calculus has changed completely.

AIZENMAN: It's become clear the new dominant omicron variant is so much more transmissible than the earlier version, and that immunity against infection doesn't last. But immunity against severe disease is durable. And so Madhi says the focus now needs to be on vaccinating people over age 50 and others who are especially vulnerable to COVID's worst consequences. Mahdi wants an all-out push to get 90% of those people vaccinated.

MADHSI: That will be much more efficient use of vaccines.

AIZENMAN: And, he says, a much more efficient use of limited resources. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.